It has been the hardest year of his life, but claiming the biggest prize in Asian soccer would make it all worth it for former Perth Glory defender Alex Grant.
The ECU Joondalup product turned K-League defender could become the first ever West Australian to win the AFC Champions League when his Pohang Steelers side takes on Saudi Arabian outfit Al-Hilal next Wednesday (12am).
It comes after the imposing centre back etched his name into club folklore in the semi-final, scoring the type of goal played out in the imaginations of kids around the world.
With Pohang down 1-0 in the 89th minute against fellow Koreans and reigning champions Ulsan Hyundai, Grant connected with a free kick, looping a header over a stranded goalkeeper and into the net to send the game into extra time, with the Steelers eventually triumphing on penalties.
While Grant still holds fond memories of the Glory’s 2018-19 Premier’s Plate-winning season, he admitted the header was probably his personal best moment on a field.
“To score the way I did, late into a game against a strong Ulsan team, and the game itself is classed as a local derby over here, so to nick the equaliser at the death was such a good feeling,” he said.
“There’s been some challenging periods throughout my year whilst I’ve been in Korea, so it was kind of nice to have such a big moment, kind of a reward for the work and what I’ve put in throughout the season.”
The challenges Grant alluded to have been mainly off-field, as the former northern suburbs resident faced not just a language barrier and adapting to a different culture, but also raising his 18-month old son with his partner, away from family and friends.
“It was extremely difficult coming over during a pandemic and it was kind of a bit nervy for the family, my partner Lauren and my son Lenny,” Grant said.
“It’s been definitely challenging without family and not really knowing anyone here or having anyone to support us.”
With no fixed timeline on a return to WA, Grant said he sympathised with every other Australian who found themselves stuck overseas at the moment.
“It has been a really big challenge and probably one of the hardest years of my life I’d say in that respect, but it has been for many other people,” he said.
“We’ve been looking to come back to Perth at the end of the season and we just feel in limbo because of the borders, it’s just making it very difficult.
“We’re one of thousands of Aussies who are in a similar situation and it’s just the way it is unfortunately.”
However, Grant said the Pohang’s Champions League run proved every cloud had a silver lining and he was relishing the chance to take on Al-Hilal.
Pohang will be underdogs against the three-time Champions League winners in a game to be played at the Saudi side’s stadium and Grant will be just the second West Australian to feature in the final after Mark Birighitti.
Grant said he felt immense pride at being part of a select group of Australians to feature in the final, following in the footsteps of the victorious Western Sydney Wanders in 2014, Adelaide United’s courageous loss in 2008 and ex-Socceroos defender Sasa Ognenovski, who captained Seongnam to victory in 2010.
“There’s not many (Australians) who have played in it, so it is an honour and something I’m extremely proud of going into the game,” he said. “I just hope I can be lifting the trophy at the end of it.”
On the field, Grant has overcome an ankle injury, which forced him out for three months, and has had to adjust to the K-League and its rigorous schedule, an issue compounded by Pohang’s deep run in the Champions League.
“It’s a lot more physically more demanding, having to back up every three days,” Grant said. “The way you train is completely different because of the schedule, there’s a lot of recovery days.
“The squads don’t chop and change that much because it’s hard for players to break in and play well, it’s generally only if someone gets injured or suspended a new player will come into the team and I’ve found that a bit of an eye-opener.
“The pace of the games are a bit quicker as well, the Koreans are technically very good and they generally never seem to give up as well.”